The Mothers of Tech: How One Organization Supports Moms to Stay and Succeed

Your company’s talent will probably have kids. That’s a fact that Tina Lee wants everyone to know. Tina is the founder of MotherCoders, a non-profit that provides a tech orientation program for moms. Another fact: 81% of women become moms. Tina thinks moms are one demographic that too often gets overlooked in the conversation about how to increase diversity in technology fields.

Not just women, but mothers in particular, are an enormous population with insight, perspective and influence. MotherCoders makes that case explicitly on its homepage, pointing to the fact that moms represent a $2.4 trillion market. “And with many of them already online and using technology, their participation in driving innovation can result in better products and services for everyone.”

It’s clear that the tech industry can’t afford to miss out on mothers as valuable contributors. Yet both anecdotal evidence and data indicate that tech companies both large and small can be inhospitable for expecting, new or even seasoned mothers.

In a recent survey of 716 women who left the tech industry, two thirds cited “motherhood” as the primary reason.

Whether companies had bad or no maternity leave policies, “lack of flexible work arrangements…or a salary that was inadequate to pay for childcare,” women who become mothers have faced significant strains in staying and succeeding in tech jobs. Even Sheryl Sandberg had to ask Sergey Brin to designate parking spots for expectant mothers at Google — he admitted that it hadn’t ever occurred to him.

“I just have so much empathy for moms who’ve had to step out of the workforce,” said Tina, who has years of experience as an IT consultant and a technical recruiter, an M.A. in Learning, Design & Technology from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and programming skills she’s picked up along the way. However, when she wanted to gain more proficiency after having her first child in 2011, she couldn’t find a resource that worked well for her as a working mom. Weekend workshops and weeknight meetups conflicted with her parenting responsibilities and the online classes she tried after her second child was born weren’t conducive to her more social learning style.

Needless to say, in most environments, Tina was the only mother with young children, exacerbating her feelings of loneliness and frustration. “I came from tech and understand tech. I’m not afraid of it, and I was having this many problems?”

In 2012, Tina launched MotherCoders in San Francisco in an effort to create an open and supportive community of moms either entirely new to technology or interested in relaunching their careers in tech. MotherCoders offers a series of eight Saturday classes to introduce students to major themes in computer programming. By the end of the course, students have built personal websites, learned about the technology landscape and tools driving innovation, and connected with women — many of them moms, too — who expose students to the many career possibilities that tech skills enable, from full stack engineering to user experience design.

In addition to fostering an open and supportive space, for a little extra money MotherCoders also provides onsite childcare, a benefit very few, if any, of the more mainstream technology education programs offer.

Two classes of women have now graduated from MotherCoders and each of the 13 graduates has taken a different path. Some moms have used MotherCoders to prepare themselves for intensive tech education bootcamps while others have used the skills they gained to grow their own businesses.

Tina and the MotherCoders

Tina is now figuring out how to scale the program to attract more students, and far beyond San Francisco. She’s received inquiries from mothers across the U.S. as well as in Ireland, New Zealand, and India who face similar challenges, and she wants to build a curriculum and an infrastructure that could support these women too. This includes attracting more donors to support the organization’s mission.

Meanwhile, more Silicon Valley companies have stepped up and re-evaluated their company policies in efforts to retain talented women. The Atlantic reported that many leading tech companies, like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, have some of the most generous parental leave policies is the U.S., across industries. And even smaller companies are starting to follow suit.

That’s a start, but the industry has a long way to go. Beyond parental leave, childcare has to be an integral part of the equation, along with a broader cultural shift in the way employers and fellow employees view women who become mothers in their careers.

“Employees have to have peace of mind about their kids to do good work,” Tina explained, “It’s a systemic problem to women participating fully in our economy and women being able to lean in. The motherhood penalty is real. The fatherhood bonus is infuriating.”

It’s time companies see motherhood as an asset. MotherCoders instills women with the skills and the confidence to prove it.

by Anna Duning at Engine, a public policy organization supporting tech entrepreneurship. This story is part of Engine’s series, “Innovation for All,” documenting efforts to diversify tech. Read this post and others on our blog at http://engine.is/news.